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Kelly McParland: Trudeau drives straight into another pothole with the WE controversy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a reporter's question during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, after announcing a program aimed at encouraging students to volunteer, on June 22.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a reporter's question during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, after announcing a program aimed at encouraging students to volunteer, on June 22.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can’t seem to help himself. Given an open road with clear sailing ahead, he roars off in search of the nearest pothole. You can almost hear the kids in the back seat: “Dad! Watch out for the pothole!” But nope … bang! There goes another axle.

He’s done it again and again . Canadians handed him a nice majority on a wave of personal popularity that seemed to augur a smooth route to a couple of easy Liberal mandates. Instead he’s been disappearing into potholes like a squirrel stashing nuts for the winter. The freebie trip to Aga Khan’s island. The costume drama in India. The determined effort to rescue SNC-Lavalin at the cost of his own credibility. The fumbling away of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. The groping allegations. The blackface embarrassment. The weird admiration for China’s autocracy. The extra plane for his canoe while campaigning against climate change.

It’s like he just can’t resist, and his advisers can’t get to him fast enough to prevent the damage. A week ago the prime minister made one of his near-daily COVID-related spending announcements. It’s hard to hand out money and hurt yourself as a politician, but he seems determined to try. His government, he declared, will give more than $900 million in help to student volunteers this summer. Eligible students will get up to $5,000, depending on the amount of time they work.

Huzzah! Another example of Liberal devotion to helping struggling Canadians. But here’s the rub: the program will be farmed out to an organization known as WE Charity, an operation with strong Liberal ties. WE will take in $19.5 million in fees for its work, but the government had no choice, the prime minister asserted: according to the federal bureaucrats, WE alone had the skills and operations to administer the program. No one else could possibly handle the job.

Which seemed a bit weird. The government’s overall COVID-19 spending as of mid-June amounted to about $170 billion, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer . Somehow, the government had managed to deliver all this money via the civil service, which is the usual means of collecting and handing out funds. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to an extra $900 million for volunteers, no organization but WE could possibly do the job. What’s more, WE is known to be a favourite charity of the prime minister and his wife, who have enthusiastically promoted it with personal appearances, speeches and podcasts. Sophie Gregoire Trudeau is an ambassador for the group. She came down with COVID-19 while appearing in London on its behalf.

Any on-the-ball disaster-avoidance team would have moved in right away to save the prime minister from getting in deeper. But Trudeau loves his potholes. As has been his custom, he refused to backtrack, insisting there was absolutely nothing untoward about the arrangement. WE and WE alone “has the scale and the ability” to deliver the program, he maintained.

Yet by putting WE in charge, the Liberals can bypass the usual modes of accountability. The opposition parties can’t ask questions. Non-governmental organizations like WE aren’t subject to the same access to information requirements as government agencies. Members of Parliament “cannot review this spending at committee,” noted Conservative MP Dan Albas. “The auditor general will not be able to audit it. Trudeau Liberals will not even disclose the contract details.”

At this point, alarms should have been blaring in the Prime Minister’s Office, but no. And things got worse. Volunteer Canada, another national volunteer group, said it was approached to work with WE, but rejected the offer because of qualms about the deal. Paula Speevak, its CEO, pointed out the obvious: “When people volunteer, they don’t get paid an hourly rate.” But the Liberal plan would give “grants” to volunteers based on the hours worked. What’s more, the Liberal pay scale, the equivalent of $10 an hour, is less than the minimum wage. In effect, the government is violating minimum wage laws to hire students at discount rates, and calling it “grants” for “volunteering.”

Trudeau wouldn’t be Trudeau if he’d been willing to acknowledge the problems at this point, so deeper into the mire he went. As Postmedia reported Tuesday , WE has been getting a steady stream of comfy deals from Ottawa since Trudeau took office. Five federal contracts since 2017, four in the last 15 months alone. The amounts weren’t high, which conveniently allowed them to be granted without being put out for bidding. “Those are the contracts that tend to be given to someone who ran your campaign, someone who was involved with you at the party level,” said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.

WE is run by Marc and Craig Kielburger, who have built a do-gooder empire on their networking skills that puts Greta Thunberg to shame. They’ve been at it since they were kids and, 25 years later, know how to rub shoulders with the rich and famous to extract cash for their charitable enterprises. Last August, Finance Minister Bill Morneau appeared with Craig Kielburger to announce that Ottawa would give $3 million to the WE Are Social Entrepreneurs program.

You wouldn’t catch the Kielburgers tripping into potholes like the ones the prime minister is so prone to. And there’s no way to tell whether Trudeau is yet prepared to climb out of this one. He has a summer free from Parliament, a Tory party without a leader, billions to hand out and a high rating in the polls.

So where’s that pothole? Lemme at it!

National Post

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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